The all-party Commission formed in response to concerns about the health of democracy triggered by poor voter turnout at local elections

KIRKLEES should be a national test bed for lowering the voting age to 16.  That is one of the key recommendations made by an all-party commission formed in the district in response to concerns about the health of democracy that were triggered by poor voter turnout at local elections and in the wake of the divisive Brexit referendum and the murder of local MP Jo Cox.

The Kirklees Democracy Commission – hailed as a ground-breaking exercise – is chaired by Dr Andy Mycock, who is Reader in Politics at the University of Huddersfield.  He leads a team of seven councillors from the Conservatives, Labour, Lib-Dems and Greens. 

story continues below...

Dr Andy Mycock and Cllr Cathy Scott

After an exhaustive consultation process, which canvassed the views of 1,000 local people plus large numbers of organisations, politicians and academics, the Commission has now issued a 144-page report, titled Growing a Stronger Local Democracy from the Ground Up, available as a free download.

The report was launched at the University of Huddersfield, during a day of events that included talks from Dr Mycock and Councillor Cathy Scott, a member of the Commission. There were also presentations from four members of Kirklees Youth Council, whose topics included the importance of giving young people a voice and the encouragement of more women to enter politics.

The launch day – which attracted a large attendance at the University’s Oastler Building – also included workshops and a special Question Time session.

The event was introduced by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, Professor Bob Cryan, who said he was proud of the extensive contribution made by students to the Commission, and of the fact that the University’s Students’ Union had made a thoughtful and ambitious submission.

“The Democracy Commission’s ambition to design a local democracy for the next generation in Kirklees draws on the radical traditions that has shaped this region.  The University of Huddersfield has been proud to support and contribute to this unique initiative in a number of ways,” said Professor Cryan.

Councillor Scott took the audience through the report and its findings and recommendations in the categories of active citizenship, the networked society, the role of councillors, decision making, regional devolution and elections.

The Commissioners reported that “our young citizens tell us they feel invisible in local politics” and wanted a greater voice.  This led to recommendations that include legislation for compulsory electoral registration at 16 and also a call that Parliament should lower the voting age to 16 and “agree that such arrangements be piloted in Kirklees in order to fully evaluate the benefits and implications”.

In the category of regional devolution, the Kirklees Democracy Commissioners state that local people are worried that it might serve to weaken their sense of identity.  “Our history and the history of our places are important to local people and to councillors… that is why devolution must be rooted in our communities”, states the report.

Both Dr Mycock and Cllr Scott have pledged that the work of the Kirklees Democracy Commission will continue.

“This report will not just sit on the shelf,” said Cllr Scott.

Dr Mycock said: “Our work has created a rich picture about what a stronger local democracy might look like.  But the publication of its final report does not mean the work of the Kirklees Democracy Commission has come to an end. 

It has a strategic vision to work towards implementing the recommendations by 2020 and will assess its progress on an annual basis.  A range of projects are being designed to take the work of the Commission forward and we look forward to finding out which ones might help strengthen local democracy.

Dr Mycock

Dr Mycock said that the 48 recommendations in the final report are “realistic and firmly grounded in the evidence gathered” and they “represent important and practical contributions to aid the reinvigoration of local democracy by seeking to develop the knowledge, engagement, and participation of Kirklees citizens”.

Many of the 1,000 citizens who engaged with the Commission raised concerns about the lack of information about local democracy, arguing there was a need to create and better share content in the public domain.

“They argued that they wanted to be valued as citizens, and that this necessitated the Council adopting a different approach to consulting with local people.  This required early and sustained engagement in decision-making,” said Dr Mycock.

“Citizens also noted that Council’s websites were transactional and designed to enable busy citizens to get specific information or tasks completed quickly and easily,” he continued.

But being a citizen is different from being a customer, said Dr Mycock.  “The former is about ongoing relationships, not transactions.  To encourage active citizens means there is a need to make better use of digital technology to change the tone and form of democratic relationships.”